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10 Packing Tips for Beginner Backpackers

It takes practice to pack your backpack efficiently
It takes practice to pack your backpack efficiently

When you first start backpacking, it takes a little practice to figure out the best way to pack your gear into your backpack. Here are some good tips to keep in mind for how to get organized, how maximize your hiking time, and keep your pack lightweight and comfortable.

  1. Document your load! Once you have a list of what you carry and the weight of each item, you’ll be able to make better decisions about what to bring and what not to bring or replace. You also won’t forget important items at home.

2. Always pack your gear the same way. This will save you time packing, setting/breaking camp, and help prevent you from loosing things.

3. Don’t try to store bulky gear inside your pack. Strap it on to the outside instead using the side compression straps or cord and a few cord locks that you rig up to the pack’s external attachment points.

4. Everything doesn’t have to be in a stuff sack. Some items like a tent body or rain gear will pack better if they’re crammed into the bottom of your backpack or used to fill in voids between round stuff sacks.

5. Line your backpack with an inexpensive plastic trash bag for waterproof protection. It’s lighter weight and less of a nuisance than using a pack cover.

6. Keep things grouped by frequency of use, not by category. If you’re using moleskin at every stop, don’t keep it with your other first aid equipment. Keep it in your hip belt pockets with your pocket knife and sunscreen.

7. Pack your sleeping bag at the bottom of the pack, medium weight items on top of the sleeping bag, heavy items close to your spine, lighter items on the top and at the perimeters.

8. On longer trips, keep a second, smaller stuff sack for food you want to eat for lunch and snacks during the day. At the start of each day, pack this smaller stuff sack and stash it someplace easily accessible. This leads to much less packing/unpacking during prime walking hours.

9. Match your trip gear and clothing to the temperature, wind, and precipitation conditions expected so you don’t pack and carry more than you need.

10. Find multiple uses for common items to save weight. A head net can be a stuff sack for clothing; a rain jacket is also a warmth layer; trekking sticks become tent poles. Be creative and save weight.

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  1. That’s a good list of tips – I could have used this a decade ago. Instead, through trial and error, I think I would have come up with pretty much the same list of tips! The only thing I would add is to develop a good storage system at home so that you know where to find things easily when it’s time to pack and you are less likely to forgot something. Even a beginner backpacker can appreciate a gear closet!

    • I agree. I have a master list of all my gear with each item’s weight on the laptop, divided into categories. Each category reflects which box the item is stored in, i.e., first aid and personal stuff fits in a plastic shoebox, while kitchen stuff is in a larger tote, etc. I don’t have a spare closet, but I do have a “gear corner” where the labeled boxes are stacked! :-)

  2. I keep my day’s snacks handy. I tend to snack all day while hiking rather than stopping for lunch. Next morning, I reload my pockets and pouches with snacks from my food bag, after I eat breakfast. I’m usually up and cooking while my gf is packing away the quilt and her air mattress. We have a routine down now. My food bag is usually at the bottom of my pack, since we use a two person quilt and she carries it. Her food bag is near the top of her pack and the quilt fills the bottom half.

    Mostly, we follow the same general ideas. Frequently used items close to hand. Stuff only used at camp or while setting up camp at the bottom of the pack.

    I think #9 evolves with experience and the seasons one is hiking in.

  3. I would suggest every time you return from a trip you unpack into two piles, what got used and what didn’t get used. Closely examine each item in the what didn’t get used pile. Was this item redundant? Was it packed out of fear? ( I’ve seen 5 waterproof containers of matches “just in case”) Did you forget you packed this item and therefor didn’t use it? Eliminate what you comfortably can and this pile will get smaller with each trip, but it won’t go away. I haven’t used my first aid kit in years and will not abandon my backup Aquamira in case of filter failure – we tend to pack our fears.

  4. We find that we are far more efficient when prepping for a hike and we lessen the risk of missing items by using a printed checklist. Our list has normal summer hiking sections, additional items for shoulder season as well as winter hikes (though we are wimps and don’t hike much in the winter :-). Our lists are also broken out by stuff sack, based on the color of the sack.

  5. Great list! I’d like to add that hip belt pockets are my favorite places to store snacks and other items I intend to use during the hike. They allow for free range of motion and since they’re firmly attached to the hips, I never have to worry about balancing the weight.

  6. I like the list, especially the bit about stuff sacks (avoiding overuse of them).

    • I think some good tips also. Water and snacks you always want available. I like to keep everything in my pack. I go through really tough trails with lots of branches and if I have items outside the pack they tend to get hung up.

  7. Instead of a garbage bag to line the pack, I use compactor bags. Still cheap and light, but much tougher. And I can use them (and duct tape) as a pack cover if the pack has to go in baggage while flying.

  8. This sort of fits into category #6. Make sure your headlight is easily accessible. When my grandson was five, we hiked to South Rim in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. Bringing a five year old, we made much slower progress than I anticipated and darkness set in before we got to our assigned campsite. Accompanied by an increasingly nervous grandchild, I did a lot of fumbling around through my gear in the fading light before I found our headlights. It got to the point I almost needed a light to find my light. Ever since, headlights go in a specific outside pocket on my pack.

  9. Always have an extra plastic bag for trash. Yours, other people’s – I generally do this on day hikes too, because I always run across something annoying. In winter, there’s oodles of used kleenexes – people out there, stick it back in your pocket. Plastic soda bottles, beer cans, and energy gel packets are popular litter. On a related subject, keep a hand cleaner, towel, minimal TP, and trowel/sturdy tent spike/whatever you dig your cat-hole with near the top.

  10. I’m still figuring this whole packing thing out …. I still unpack and pack all the time … appreciate all the input and comments and the list ….. Thanks

  11. Good tips, but “Some items like a tent body or rain gear will pack better if they’re crammed into the bottom of your backpack” only if you don’t expect rain anytime soon. I keep mine in an outside pocket for ready access and to avoid putting them wet inside the pack.

  12. Packing loose and losing stuff are two different things :) With apologies to those who never lose sleep over loose remarks.

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